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How to save water in the house.

How to save water in the house Here's a look at conservation indoors, where half of a typical household's water is used. Toilets, discussed on the next two pages, consume most; next come showers and baths, then washing machines and dishwashers.

If you shower just a little differently, you can cut the water you use while showering by more than 50 percent. And you won't just save water; you'll also save the energy it takes to heat it. The following steps should significantly reduce your shower's water consumption. We also picture a water-conserving option for your kitchen sink.

Restrict the flow

The easiest step is to install a low-flow shower head, which reduces maximum flow to 3 to less than 1 1/2 gallons per minute, depending on head design and your water pressure (older fixtures shoot out water at a rate of 5 to 8 gallons per minute). Costs run $3 and up.

Low-flow heads are required on most new construction throughout the West, and many cities are making sure that less-efficient heads are replaced. In Los Angeles, if you sell your house, a licensed plumber or retrofitter must inspect it and certify that low-flow heads are in place. The city of San Jose sent the head shown at lower left in the photograph below to all of its residential water users.

We found the low-flow heads splash more and are slightly noiier than standard heads. Less expensive models deliver fine droplets that won't wet your body as quickly--and might even feel a little cool by the time they get down to your knees.

Don't let the water run

The second thing to consider is an on-off valve near the shower head. With one of these, you shower as you usually do but shut off the water while soaping up or shampooing. Valves are designed to dribble when closed, so water in the pipe stays at the selected temperature and doesn't blast you with a cold stream when you flick the water back on. These valves are built into many low-flow heads (make sure levers are shutoffs, not just spray adjustments).

Shutoff time is usually about half your shower; water savings are proportional.

Shutoff valves are also available for sinks. Though it seems easy enough to simply turn off the water as you're washing vegetables or dishes, an at-the-tap valve makes the task virtually effortless; you'll be much more apt to use it. Most are threaded so you can reconnect your old aerator.

Staying in hot water

We waste a lot of water waiting for it to warm up. Buckets by showers or sinks to catch the cold water will give you water for plants, pets, pasta. Some readers have shut off the water supply to their toilets; they use the fresh water caught from showers and tubs to manually refill the bowl and tank (use gray water only in the bowl). The flush action works as usual.

Cut the heating-up time by insulating hot-water pipes in crawl spaces or wherever they're accessible. You'll save energy, too, because--drought or no drought--heating water has no peak season; you need hot water year-round. On average, you'll use 15 to 20 gallons of heated water per person a day; almost a quarter of a home's energy bill goes to heating water.

Instant hot-water devices will give you 190[degrees] to 200[degrees] water on demand. These compact sink-side spigots place a small heating unit in the cupboard under the sink. They tie into existing plumbing with a 1/4-inch copper line (like a refrigerator's ice maker), and typically plug right into a 110-volt circuit (under most sinks for the disposal; the switched duplex receptacle can be split so the heater plug is always "hot").

Inside the average house, even properly functioning toilets rank as the number one water users. Standard toilets, using 3 1/2 to 7 or more gallons per flush, consume more than any other appliance; they account for 35 percent or more of your daily indoor usage.

If your toilet leaks imperceptibly, it could waste 40 or more gallons each day.

How to detect and fix

running toilet

Even if you can't see or hear any water running, take a few minutes to check your toilet to be sure. All you need to do is remove the tank lid and add 12 drops or so of colored dye. (Blue food coloring will work, or ask your water company for dye tablets.) Then wait 5 minutes to see if the dye flows into the bowl.

If it does, either the float ball is riding too high, letting water overfill the tank and spill down the overflow tube into the bowl; or the chain linkage between the flush handle and the stopper at tank bottom is kinked or fouled, preventing the stopper from sealing the flush valve; or the stopper or valve seat is worn and closing improperly.

To find the exact problem, first lift up on the float arm. If the water flow stops (you should be able to hear the change), try bending the arm so the float ball is slightly lower. Now when the tank fills, the float ball should shut off the inlet valve sooner and with more force.

Also make sure the float arm is screwed tightly into the ball cock assembly (which joins to the inlet pipe), and check the chain linkage to be sure it's not interfering with the full closure of the flush valve. If adjusting the float arm stops the leak, simply replace the toilet tank's lid. If the float is not "floating" (it could be cracked and waterlogged), replace it with a new one.

If another dye check reveals that water still flows between the tank and bowl, turn off the water shutoff valve behind the tank, flush the toilet, then sponge the tank dry. If the stopper at the tank bottom is worn or rough, remove it and take it to a plumbing shop for a replacement (it may be shaped as a ball, disk, or flapper; replacement need not be the same).

Also check to see if the valve seat is rough, scaled, or corroded. If it is, dry it with a cloth and use emery paper to smooth it. With the new stopper installed, turn the water shutoff valve back on, and repeat the dye check.

If these remedies don't help, the valve seat assembly may need to be replaced, or the ball cock assembly's washers or valve is probably worn or faulty. You can replace individual parts or the entire ball cock assembly. Many packages have full instructions.

Retrofitting your toilet

for greater efficiency

If you're going to replace any or all of the mechanisms, or if you want to make your existing toilets more efficient, use assemblies designed to save water.

Variable-buoyancy flappers, flap actuators that ride on the overflow tube, and dual-handle mechanisms will greatly increase the efficiency of your existing toilet. They range in price from $5 to $40; some water districts will send you parts free.

Unlike water-displacement devices (jugs of water, dams, bricks), the best of the new retrofit water savers don't reduce the force of the water rushing into the bowl--the action that makes typical siphon-wash toilets work properly.

Once you pull down the handle, gravity makes the water in a toilet tank rush into the bowl, creating the siphon that carries the waste down the drain line. A standard toilet is engineered to work with the force that its held water generates--a 5- gallon toilet works most efficiently when the pressure of 5 gallons of water rushes into the bowl, through the trap, and down the line.

A tank dam or jug of water essentially makes the tank smaller; that smaller amount of water moves less water into the bowl with less force. The dam or jug may work fine, but if you find you have to flush more than once to clear the bowl, a different retrofit mechanism may be your next step.

The new devices are designed to make the flapper close before all the water rushes from tank to bowl, but the water that does rush through still moves with its original full force. If such a device is put into a 5-gallon toilet and adjusted to save 2 gallons, all 5 gallons are still moving downward once flushing is started, but the flap will close while 2 gallons still remain in the tank.

Dual-handle mechanisms work in a similar way, but they give you a choice. They still let you use the full flush with one handle, but have a second handle that releases up to 75 percent less water--but this is still enough force to carry away liquid waste. Most of these devices won't change the way you use your toilet. But there is another change you can make: don't flush so often.

Your best bet: a new ULF

You'll cut your water use most by installing new ultra-low-flush (ULF) toilets in your house. Older toilets use 5 to 7 gallons or more per flush. In 1978, codes were changed to require 3 1/2-gallon-per-flush toilets for new construction. But ULF toilets--using only 1.6 gallons or less per flush--are already replacing these in many Western homes. Some water districts even offer a rebate if you install one.

How much water do ULF toilets save over conventional ones? Conservative estimates are 20 percent of total indoor water consumption for a family of four.

You'll likely have fewer problems with water-miserly ULF toilets than with the 3 1/2-gallon "efficient" toilets that preceded them. Why? Back to engineering. Most first-generation water-efficient toilets (the 3 1/2s) simply reduced the amount of water in each flush cycle. They didn't change much else. Double-flushing and drain clogs were far too common.

New ULFs are completely reengineered; steeper bowl sides, shallower traps, smaller siphon outlets, and 5-gallon tanks that only release 1 1/2 gallons of water per flush (but use all 5 gallons of force and pressure) make them perform better than many units that use more than twice the water.

The new toilets have to meet more stringent performance standards than any previous generation of appliances. The new American National Standards Institute hydraulic performance standard covers bowl cleaning, removal of solids, and drain-line carry over a distance of 40 feet. Even toilets on the market that have passed previous standards will have to be tested again to meet this 1990 standard. Toilets should carry a stamp or sticker (likely with the initials UPC and/or IAPMO) saying they've been approved.

Costs range from less than $100 to more than $300, depending on the manufacturer, design, and dealer. Gallons per flush should be printed in the tank or on the packing box.

Before installing new toilets in older houses, check the offset--the distance between the back wall studs and the center of the drain hub (measure to the hold-down nuts). New toilets are designed for a 12-inch offset. In older houses the offset might be more, pushing the toilet away from the wall.

It's not that difficult or messy to replace your old toilet with a water-conserving one, as shown below. For step-by-step instructions, see page 138 of the March Sunset.

With strict rationing in effect in many parts of California (50 gallons per person per day in some areas), many homeowners will need to monitor their water use on a daily basis.

How do you know whether you're meeting the restrictions? You can't necessarily depend on your water bill. Many cities send them out only every other month, which means two months could go by before you know how much water you're using. By that time, you could be way over your allotment.

The best way to determine household water use is to look at your water meter. You can figure out not only daily usage but also how much water is used by each appliance (dishwasher, washing machine) and whether there's a leak either inside or outside the house. But first you have to understand how to read the meter.

Most water meters are located in a concrete box, usually in the parking strip by the street curb or on your property near the street (in the lawn or shrub border).

The two basic kinds of meters are the straight reading meter shown at top right and the round reading meter below. Within these two types, you'll find several minor variations.

The meter shows the total amount of water used since it was installed, measured in cubic feet (100 cubic feet equals 748 gallons) or, occasionally, in gallons. Since water departments charge rates per 100 cubic feet (1 ccf), read the blue dials (10 and 100 cubic feet) as decimals.

Disregard the 1-cubic-foot dial (on the straight reading meter, it's the large needle that sweeps the entire face) except when testing for leaks; see below.

Straight reading meter. This is the simplest type of meter to read. To determine your daily usage, read each number just as you would figure the mileage on your car odometer; include the last two blue numbers at right (disregard them for monthly usage). At the same time next day, read the meter again.

The illustration shows 6,548.35. If the following day's reading is 6,548.95, it means you have used 0.6 ccf's in 24 hours, or 448.8 gallons (0.6 times 748).

Round reading meter. This meter reads like a clock, but the hands on some of the dials turn counterclockwise (look to see which way the numbers go).

Starting with the highest-numbered dial, read all the dials (except 1 cubic foot). When a hand sits between numbers, use the lower one. If a hand sits right on a number, check the position of the hand on the next lower dial.

For example, the meter at right reads 794.16. The arrow on the 100,000-cubic-foot dial sits on the 8, but the arrow on the next lower dial, 10,000 cubic feet, is just short of a full cycle, so the 100,000-cubic-foot arrow is read as 7. (Once the 10,000 arrow passes 0, you would read the higher dial as 8.)

Some round reading meters have five or seven dials instead of six. The seven-dial type goes up to a larger number. The five-dial type has a large needle to measure one cubic foot (as shown on the straight reading meter) instead of the small sixth dial.

How to determine

water use of appliances

Besides telling you overall household water use, your water meter can also help you figure out where most of your water is going.

Turn off all water inside and outside the house. Read the 100-, 10-, and 1-cubic-foot numbers. Start an appliance (take a shower, start the dishwasher), and when it's finished, read the meter. Subtract the first number from the second number (remember, all these numbers are decimals) and multiply the difference by 748.

Checking for leaks

Another thing your water meter can do is tell you whether there's a leak either inside the house or outdoors, although it won't tell you where it's located. For information on leak detection, see below.

You've tried every water-saving measure you can think of, but you still have bills that read as though you're squandering water. Maybe you are but don't know it.

Underground water leaks may go unnoticed when camouflaged by lawn sprinklers, heavy irrigation of summer annuals and vegetables, and the like. If you've tried serious conservation and still seem to be using a lot of water, it's time to check for the presence of leaks.

It's simple enough to find out if you're "consuming" water when you haven't even turned on a spigot. Go around the house and make sure everything is off: appliances are through cycling (turn off the ice maker), faucets are shut. Then open the cap of your water meter to expose the valve gauge, and put a mark on the rim where the dial needle is pointing. If you have several dials, mark the one indicating 1-cubic-foot increments.

Don't run any water for 30 minutes. Then check the meter. If the indicator has moved from your mark, you've got a leak. (The meter may also have a little triangle that spins to show flow; its movement is further evidence of leakage.)

You can determine the amount of water loss from the dial. If you waited a half-hour between checks, multiply the incremental change by 2 to get an hourly total. The gauge is calibrated in cubic feet; 1 cubic foot is about 7 1/2 gallons. So a 2-cubic-foot change in a half-hour would be 2 x 2 x 7 1/2: a loss of 30 gallons per hour.

To track down the leak, first check where you know pipes run. Look for wet spots, sink-holes, cracks in walls. If you see no evidence of water loss, consider calling in an expert.

Pools are more likely places for leaks than plumbing lines. If the water level in your pool drops much more than 1/4 inch per day under normal, calm conditions--or more than 1/3 inch in the desert--you may have a leak (a covered pool should show no loss). Test by putting a piece of tape on the tile at water level; check again in 24 hours.

In the past, the way to find a leak was for a plumber to make an educated guess, followed by trial-and-error digging. If no leak was readily found, the line could be abandoned and bypassed. This process was time-consuming--and expensive.

Today, electronic leak-detection devices can identify a leak's location to within a few inches, even through several feet of concrete; it can also determine the depth. Pinpointing the leak saves you money on repairs and also keeps landscape disruption to a minimum.

Professional leak-detection services generally charge about $200 to track down a leak and make repairs. Usually, if they find a major leak, they'll fix it, then test the line again to see whether there are other water losses the main leak was obscuring.

Another advantage to using a professional service is that you can find out where most of your plumbing lines run and map their location for future reference.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Sunset Drought Survival Guide for Home and Garden; includes related articles
Date:May 1, 1991
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